At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill


This summer we’ll be reading three books based on a singular concept: The Summer of Love, LGBT Edition. The books will be love stories, loosely defined, by and about the LGBT community. We’ve chosen our first two books: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (meeting July 27th) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (meeting August 31st). Now we must choose our third book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of the suggestions people have made. These will be cut and paste reviews, and not my personal thought (I have not read any of these yet). Feel free to post suggestions below.  We’ll be meeting June 29th at BookPeople to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and make our decision.

At Swim, Two Boys

By Jamie O’Neill

562 pgs



Reviewed by Adam Mars-Jones here:

The massive satisfactions to be had from Jamie O’Neill’s first novel, in terms of language, character, plot, never quite stand apart from its sheer curiosity value. It’s rare enough to come upon a house built up against a church, so that the growls of the organ, mutterings of choristers, come faintly through the wall. Unheard-of to have a house entirely built inside a cathedral.

The cathedral is Ulysses, and the overwhelming influence on At Swim, Two Boys is Joyce. Never mind that at least two aspects of O’Neill’s project – its paean to love between men, its rousing version of the events leading up to the Easter Rising – would have seemed rather foreign to his idol. So much is borrowed from Ulysses, almost page by page, that it seems impossible for the debt ever to be made good. Yet the book makes an impact far beyond pastiche.

James O’Neill was brought up in Dun Laoghaire (once Kingstown) and what could be more natural than that he should use scenes familiar to him in his writing? Except that Joyce’s footprints were in those sands before him, and the Martello tower at Sandycove loomed over the opening section of Ulysses long before O’Neill was there to see it.

The 16-year-old heroes of his book, shy pale Jim Mack and bold dark Doyler Doyle, childhood friends, make a pact in 1915 to meet the next Easter, and to swim out together to the distant rocks called the Muglins. The pretext is to plant a green flag there, to claim the rocks for Ireland, but there is also an attraction between them, a deeper promise to be together.

Withdrawn, guilt-prone, motherless, Jim is like Stephen Dedalus with a heart. Even MacMurrough, an older man with designs on both boys, who gives Jim swimming lessons, is Blazes Boylan with a brain. And certainly Jim’s father Mr Mack, shopkeeper, good neighbour, interested indefatigable outsider, is Leopold Bloom redrawn. Mr Mack is an outsider by virtue of his loyalism, more a matter of emotions than politics since he was more or less brought up by the Army. Being made a sergeant cost him his dearest friendship – with Doyler’s father – and even now he harbours a futile desire to rise socially.

Bloomish in particular is his habit of thinking up slogans and wanting to see them in print: ‘Shocks and stares – should send that in the paper. Pay for items catchy like that. Or did I hear it before?’

Over the course of Ulysses, James Joyce made incomparable advances in realism, and then left realism behind. O’Neill doesn’t follow him so far, though he rivals some of his thrilling arias of notation: ‘A milk van round a corner came clopping, colloping, collapaling to a stop clop.’

Dublin speech is present in strength and depth, from a saucy servant girl’s ‘giving such a slice of the ignore’ and the newsboy without even the words for his wares (‘the even papers’) to the grandiloquence fed by the ritual of worship in Latin. Mr Mack himself picks up some classical scraps, though he doesn’t quite get the hang (‘Deo volenting’, ‘cosmos mentis’). Salting the latinate vocabulary – ‘the viraginous mob’, ‘cows munched their post-emulgial cud’ – is another more local and urgent: ‘fust’, ‘scringe’, ‘stookawn’, ‘claub’, ‘kerf’, ‘sulter’.

By limiting the action of Ulysses to a single day, Joyce foreshortened the growth-curves of his creatures. Jamie O’Neill grants himself more leisure but still sometimes seems to force the deepening of his characters. The boys’ growing confidence in themselves and each other is well managed – their sexual idealism chimes with the political climate, its romance with ideas of freedom and belonging. MacMurrough’s redemption, though, by the love he sees between them comes across as sentimental.

Historical personages are deftly mixed in with fictional ones. Sexual oppression shadows the purely political: Roger Casement haunts the book as an offstage presence, though there is no speculation about his private life. The two strands coincide in the figure of Sir Edward Carson, a staunch Unionist in the present tense of the book but also the man who took pleasure, as a barrister in court, in bringing Oscar Wilde down.

It’s only in the last 50 pages of the book that the magnificence of Jamie O’Neill’s rhetoric seems forced. There may be correspondences between throwing off the yoke of Empire and claiming the right to love your pal in pride and dignity, but no amount of lyrical prose can make them the same thing. It’s a shame that this remarkable writer, having poured so much eloquence into his book, couldn’t resist throwing in also his thumb on the scales.


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